Martin Schwartz: The Issues Behind the Election

The spin machines have kicked their final ads into high gear. The postman has the last negative mailer at your door and the internet punches are slamming heads every minute. With professionals running at least two of the three slate campaigns, many consider this council race the most professional election that Montclair has yet to see.

Here’s the real story.

The Karen Turner-led Real Progress Montclair ticket is not some right-wing, Republican Tea Party conspiracy ready to cut the Library and Montclair Pre-K totally to the bone. And yet, there are clearly more well-to do residents associated with this political effort who want more fiscal controls and are concerned about their constantly rising taxes and an excessive public debt. They and many others – including center-left progressives – are unhappy about a still out-of-control government that’s put everyone behind the eight ball, chasing residents and buyers away, while lowering everyone’s property values. More than any other slate, Karen Turner’s efforts have helped change the conversation to question whether the Township is working for its employees, or is in the service of Montclair residents. Will she go too far and not maintain the progressive Montclair that everyone loves? That’s the question which has now been planted.

Conversely, the Robert Jackson-headed Montclair 2012 slate is not in the pocket of top Essex County and state democratic politicians lurking behind every soon-to-be-added government job. The Princeton graduated, Harvard business school trained Jackson is not sitting on the phone with union bosses daily taking orders how he will bring in the party machine and start running Montclair Township should he take office. And yet, Jackson and his core supporters are much closer to all these pols than any other ticket, which can also mean more ancillary state and county government assistance for future Montclair projects. But it also leaves questions whether he really has will to create the kind of efficient and more customer-service government that we ultimately need.

Similarly, Harvey Susswein is not some passive tool of former pols Ed Remsen, Don Zief and their  “bond everything in site” past political crew. He is not ready and willing to do their bidding. The rest of his team has hardly seen them. Indeed the Wharton trained, turn-around business consultant Susswein, as much as anyone, has highly distinguished himself on issues during this campaign and has been out in front of many policies and resident concerns. Susswein even came out first against the Brian Stolar-Steve Plofker Assisted Living change on Church Street for not providing enough ancillary ratables given the redevelopment plan. This was a direct opposite of the previous, roll-over land use policies from his “brain trust” patrone – former Mayor Remsen. And yet, Susswein’s core advisors and supporters are still comprised of these players. They will have personal access if he wins – despite new converts like civic activist and former elect-a-board opponent Pegi Adam and Council fiscal maverick Cary Africk.

Yes…it is now time to consider final choices for the Township Council.

Fair warning, in the past, when the stakes weren’t high, residents voted for who they knew best, even casual friends from the soccer field. This year, Montclair’s fiscal and management issues are such that you can no longer treat this election as just another small town beauty contest.

Residents can not engage in communal amnesia and ignore someone’s record, statements, or underlying incongruent beliefs just because you like them personally.

Being a candidate’s neighbor, or seeing someone a few times at a charity benefit does not explain their underlying view on the role of government. It does not answer what they will do specifically about debt reduction, outsourcing v. services resale, economic development or revenue generation. And it certainly doesn’t tell you about their willingness to confront and demand deliverables from a previously no goals-no repercussions township staff.

This year, Montclair residents actually have to vote for people who can turn things around.

Think about it. Those serving on the Council are effectively joining the management
team of a medium sized business. In this case it’s your business – with a nearly $200
million budget that some feel is at the tipping point. Almost 25 percent of our tax
receivables – $16 million today – now goes into debt service on almost $250 million in
bonded debt.

Even our debt management requires much more professional handling. Why? The current “progressive” council failed to follow the timely refinancing recommendations of the Township’s Capital Finance Committee. As a result, we are now out $300,000 a year in interest savings.

Montclair Inc., with all its great assets, is not working very well. The status quo clearly has to change — but without throwing the baby out with the bathwater. No one wants to lose core values that still make this Township great. And yet, we can no longer continue to mortgage our future ability to get anything done.

Originally, the three mayoral candidates were running together on the same ticket. They each brought different strengths and constituencies to the table. Now, with only nuanced differences between some positions, one must look also to temperament, their choice of teammates, handlers, and core supporters. These too, are signs how they will carry and align themselves when dealing with a range of competing interests and difficult issues once in elected office.

For a highly involved body politic, we do not address our underlying issues particularly well. Case in point: the most specific debate this year was run by the high school kids. They confront issues openly in Debate 101. We do not. Only with anonymous commentary on the blogs do people get into real details sometimes – spaced intermittently among the commentary cracks. I would expect the same after this story.

Why is it so hard to openly confront reality? Because as adults with children –- it’s personally uncomfortable to critique someone’s logic one day, then see them or their spouse on the street the very next. There remains a small town pull to keep things genteel and general.

It’s not working. All that’s done is to sweep conflicts under the rug. What we’ve done for the past 12 years has been to use more spending and debt and cover up divisions. Rather than face conflicts head on, we’re behind the eight ball now trying to keep the façade of peace, but without addressing underlying class and sometimes even racial tensions really at the table.

Dealing with conflicts democratically through an agreed public policy, is the only way to stop Montclair’s uncontrolled slide into the fiscal poor house — no matter how uncomfortable the decision. Pre-K services, affordable housing, land use, or funding that seems benefit one economic class or racial group more than another – they all have to be addressed head on.

The Policy Choices

So let’s do a little final 12th hour debating here to help frame your choices.

Do you agree with unopposed 4th ward candidate Rene Baskerville’s view that no town worker should have to give up benefits and no public jobs should be lost through the prospect of outsourcing municipal services in the future?

Both the Susswein ‘For Montclair’ and Turner ‘Real Progress’ Montclair teams support a different view. They believe in a market philosophy that looks at outsourcing as a means to potentially save taxpayers millions in areas like sanitation. They point to communities and cities around the state and country that have implemented outsourcing with substantial cost reductions as the result.

In contrast, the Robert Jackson-led Montclair 2012 ticket does not advocate for
outsourcing. And Jackson has publicly said that he wanted Rene Baskerville on his
team. Instead, Jackson believes Montclair Township should sell its municipal services to
other communities – even if the returns are only incremental. Jackson argues that
an ancillary re-selling of services still helps maintain current staffing and avoids
cutsbacks, while keeping necessary standards of service still within Montclair.

While both Turner and Susswein also support “shared services” and are for the “special districts” that Jackson’s team supports, they counter that Montclair’s sanitation costs are already three times higher than Glen Ridge. Therefore, why would they or other towns be willing to buy our services at market rates? They say that Jackson’s service deals will take years to implement – if even possible. Instead, they argue we need the savings now – ergo outsourcing.

Jackson responds that like our fire services arrangement with Glen Ridge, even when negotiated down with less revenue after Bloomfield’s competitive tender – it still allows us to keep the department up to speed. He says Susswein just didn’t get it when he publicly criticized the staffing economics of this renegotiated Glen Ridge deal.

Is that an apple to apples argument? It appears not. What’s behind the difference is a a different underlying view: what is wrong with providing a better life and better benefits for our sanitation workers – approximately 25 percent of whom live in town – rather than throw them into the marketplace? Why should we force them to take the same job with a private company who will no doubt provide less employee benefits and lower salaries?

Encapsulated by local Democratic Party player Al Smith – ‘‘Montclair’s budget should not be balanced on the backs of the poor” and those who can least afford a salary and benefit cut.

Other residents just do not see the world through these same equity eyes. They believe we live in a market environment and a market economy. Therefore, taxpayers – all taxpayers rich and poor – should benefit from potential savings. We should open up the Township to competition. And within that service competition, it means outsourcing.

Who is right? There’s no easy answer. Perhaps both. Nonetheless, the 2010 census reports an 18 percent decline in African Americans in Montclair, particularly those with lower incomes. And this took place during the exact time period when local tax increases rose dramatically. Therefore higher taxes, it appears, not home price fluctuations, is what caused an exodus and change to Montclair’s economic and racial character.

If outsourcing keeps future taxes down for all residents, and keeps lower income families in their homes, many feel all taxpayers should benefit – not just a few workers. They believe this is where the Township Council’s responsibility ultimately lies.

Regardless of your view, the issue should be seen on both the fiscal and moral planes that it lives.

There is a similar dynamic over municipal and Board of Ed management staffing and worker benefits. The Turner and Susswein teams advocate a full review and potential reorganization of all municipal staffing and a better use of technology to save money. They want to find inefficiencies and duplication of roles and supervisory staff for savings.

The Jackson 2012 ticket, while not opposed to addressing inefficiencies through reorganization, did not stress this as a focus. And yet, Jackson says he’s going to demand much better performance from any highly paid municipal staff not doing their job. If not, they will have to deal he says. Jackson has also said privately he is willing to restart OBAC up again, this time with real teeth.

Still, for Jackson, revenue generation and more new development is the way out of our current fiscal morass – not cuts. Jackson wants to use the township’s undeveloped land and all the areas around our five train stations to create more ratables for Montclair.

The other two slates also advocate enhanced economic development and a more proactive business climate. But they argue increased ratables from development are only a long term result. Chris Swenson, Real Progress’s 3rd ward candidate, counters Jackson directly. He points out that there is only 16,000 square feet of empty land available for construction. Swenson claims we would need much much more square footage to bring in the added ratables that Jackson is talking about. And we don’t have it he says. His opponent Jeff Jacobson agrees.

Jackson retorts that he has the expertise to get these projects moving at our train stations areas where there is available growth. He says he will work with NJ. Transit to help make it happen. Jackson envisions a cornucopia of efforts – including Lackawanna Plaza and the DCH site to start filling Montclair’s empty coffers.

Optimistic estimates like $9 million in additional revenue yearly have been kicked around coming from his team.

Directly disputing Jackson is also Susswein’s ‘For Montclair’ finance head David Grill. Grill publicly called Jackson’s plans “fairy dust.” He dismisses any claim that we can develop our way out of tax increases quickly without addressing the underlying staffing and internal fiscal issues in the near term.

Who is right? You decide.

The End Game

While these issues are the core of the election differences, they’ve become secondary to the sideshow that is happening right now: the “he-said she-said” blog and direct mail attack on Karen Turner over the Montclair Pre-k and the Library. It’s been quite effective and has changed the debate over the last few days.

Yes, Turner did ruminate publicly about the need to reduce Library support given the current school and internet avails. However, the current council, even Cary Africk, also proposed serious cuts to Library support in past years given our current economic climate. And while Turner has said she is willing to put all things on the table including the Library – one should be realistic. No mayor is going to fully cut support for the Montclair Public Library. Turner has already back-pedaled. But does it mean she was wrong to consider the Library equally and not relate to it as an untouchable sacred cow? You decide.

Nonetheless, it’s Pre-K funding that’s really the area of controversy today. And the Montclair Community Pre-K itself is a sideshow for the lack of early childhood education policy. The real issue is what level of Pre-K support the Township should provide. Not at which institution. That’s secondary no matter how many people love the Montclair Community Pre-K.

Here, Karen Turner and her team may be even further to the left than both other tickets – if one reads between the lines. Her slate is actually advocating a full review of Pre-K services as an overall policy. They would potentially even consider an extension of services throughout the year. And that’s essentially day care – a policy that many African American community leaders have been advocating for years.

How would she pay for a 12 month extended support service given her current fiscal approach? That she will have to explain. Nonetheless, the hoopla over foreclosing on the Pre-K loan is a mask.

Susswein’s David Grill, in his call to arms for all Montclair Pre-K lovers to look hard at Turner’s position, conveniently fails to own up to his own and the former Remsen crew’s culpability in how they set up the Pre-K financing long term. The Montclair Community Pre-K is clearly in default today of its loan promise and has not become self-sufficient as was required. Now, the Remsen boys are looking for a wink deal to wipe away those debts for their longtime pet project. They should have forced the issue openly three years ago through the democratic process. Instead, they let the institution suffer and over a million in arrears build up.

In the end, after review, the decision could be that the Montclair Pre-K is the only institution that should be publicly funded. And even more, to save money, that it should oversee all other public Pre-K sites under one administration. The current defaulted debt should also likely be paid off. But this should all come through the democratic process after review. It should not be forced by behind the scenes machinations from the players who put everyone into a hole before with massive debts and huge tax increases.

Pull the Lever

These are some of the underlying tensions and issues behind this council race today and the dilemma facing centrists and center-left progressives in deciding whom to vote for.

Those to the center and center-left by sheer numbers, as seen in every other recent election, will decide the contest tomorrow. Residents farther to left and those on the right are already decided for the most part. It’s the middle and the still undecided that have to make up their minds.

By Tuesday night, Montclair’s center and center-left soccer moms and dads, most with six-digit plus incomes, will consider underlying issues of fairness involved. They’ll weigh their taxpayer rights, a continued fiscal melt-down and their own personal self-interest against long held progressive views.

Those votes will decide the election.

A local business owner, Martin Schwartz comments here on issue of local concern.

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20 COMMENTS

  1. you mean because he actually discussed the issues in depth and didn’t resort to calling anyone a hack?

  2. It may have been longer than a lot of other posts here, but it was well worth it. This is a terrific breakdown of issues before us.

    …Andrew

  3. nicely done Martin. well-written, even handed, interesting synopsis. i’m going to the polls now.

  4. Great article! In the past few days I’ve overheard several people talking about voting for people because they know them, giving no other reasons.

  5. Excellent, indeed. Write-in Vote
    For Martin Schwartz!

    Agreed! Actually, I’m sure Martin is quite relieved that he decided not to run for office this year. This campaign has taken so many nasty and bizarre turns. For a town where so many people pride themselves on being intelligent and well informed, this election cycle has now turned into a bad game of telephone, with disinformation and outright lies spreading like wildfire. If you were to believe some of the things I was hearing when I was out last night, you’d think Karen Turner was the next Sarah Palin–only MORE conservative.

  6. Martin: I’d a thought that I don’t think you quite covered: sustainability. What is the long term result of the choice we make today?

    Consider if one chose the path outlined by Al Smith for example. It is safe to assume that we’d see ever-increasing taxes in that scenario, leading to the continued reduction in both lower-income residents and residents that work for the town.

    As the latter continues, do we not face increased pressure to outsource – or otherwise address costs in a fashion counter to Mr. Smith’s ideal – as people working for the town represent a shrinking percentage of the electorate? If so, we end up in the same situation as now only with a more homogeneous and affluent Montclair.

    I wonder if this doesn’t suggest that the equitable solution is to take some action now, while Montclair is still the Montclair we favor and while town employees are not completely absent from the electorate.

    …Andrew

  7. Are any of the candidates advocating for a review of the police force? It’s too big! And those muscle cars? Sheesh…

  8. Cool, thanks! My partner and I are new to Montclair. This is a helpful starting point. The sooner I get to a voting booth, the sooner I can rid myself of candidates shoving flyers in my face at the train station.

  9. “Nonetheless, the 2010 census reports an 18 percent decline in African Americans in Montclair, particularly those with lower incomes. And this took place during the exact time period when local tax increases rose dramatically.”

    Martin — where did you find the numbers that support an 18 percent decline in African American populations? I can only find evidence of a 5 percent decline.

Comments are closed.